Give employees paid sick leave and they're less likely to arrive at work flu-ridden, which means they're also less likely to spread that sickness around, not only to co-workers but to the general population. This makes intuitive sense. Think, for instance, of all the coughing and hacking you have to duck on your mass transit trip to work during flu season.
Take away that paid sick leave, or reduce it, and the workplace remains a disease conduit — with people feeling they have little choice but to trudge into work, contagion be damned. But employers also suspect workers use their sick pay when they're not sick, to take a day off on the company dime. Also very intuitive — but until now, these connections have been more anecdotal than empirical.
A new National Bureau of Economic Research study, "The Pros and Cons of Sick Pay Schemes: Testing for Contagious Presenteeism and Noncontagious Absenteeism Behavior," lays claim to finally proving cause-and-effect between contagious presenteeism (coming to work sick), its effect on flu levels in the larger community and how varying amounts of paid sick leave affect employee behavior.
Researchers Stefan Pichler of the KOF Swiss Economic Institute and Nicolas R. Ziebarth of Cornell University note that “[t]he U.S. is the only industrialized country without universal access to paid sick leave. About half of the workforce lacks access to paid sick leave, particularly low-income employees in the service sector.”
Their study sought to sort through how offering paid sick leave would affect worker behavior, and to test the theory that employees who don’t get paid sick leave will come to work even if they’re contagious — a tricky task, the authors write, given that “empirically proving the existence of presenteeism with contagious diseases is extremely difficult, if not impossible, because contagiousness is generally unobservable.”
To Shirk or Not to Shirk
To do that, the authors first correlated Google Flu Trends data with U.S. sick pay mandates to see what, if any, impacts these mandates have at the regional level. With American sick pay schemes determined regionally — and not nationally mandated as in other countries — this allowed researchers to more easily detect cause-and-effect relationships. The results were clear: “When U.S. employees gain access to paid sick leave, the general flu rate in the population decreases significantly.”
The researchers also looked at German sick pay mandates that varied the level of sick pay as a way to test their model. They found that cutting sick pay from 100 percent to 80 percent of foregone wages reduced overall sickness rates by about 20 percent. In short, employers are at least partially right: Reducing sick pay results in a greater dropoff in shirking than the increase in employees coming to work sick and contagious.
Still, employers may have to recognize the bigger tradeoff between offering paid sick leave or reducing it — it might be tempting to brush off the flu as little more than a bad cold, but it is a very real public health hazard that still kills thousands of Americans each year. As such, perhaps decisions on paid sick leave are best made for companies in the form of government mandates, regional or national, the authors say. And a bit of shirking, we all know at least anecdotally, can be good for one's mental health — a perfect subject for a future study.